You and I need to have a conversation about the incidence, prevalence and danger of childhood sexual abuse. We need to have this conversation not just with ourselves, but with our spouses, with our friends, and with our children. I realize this is not a fun conversation; it’s the kind of talk that riles our nerves and puts fear in our bellies. But insofar as knowledge is power, as well as is half the battle, the conversation must be had.*
‘Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.’
The reality is, when it comes to sexual abuse, our children are not automatically as safe as we’d like them to be. We may build around them a fortress of protection, but I want to argue that we have to build within them a defense every bit as strong as the defense without. I also want to emphasize that danger lies not at the hands of strangers, but in the hands of those we are oft too quick to trust.
Sexual abuse is “any contact or interaction (visual, verbal, or psychological) between a child/adolescent and an adult (or older teen) when the child/adolescent is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or another person.” (Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse; book here, website here)
For a more detailed definition, see here.
We know that:
- 1 in 3 girls (statistics vary, but they always fall between 1 in 4 to 1 in 3) and 1 in 7 boys (often the statistics show 1 in 6) will be sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood
- As many as 47% of perpetrators are related to the victim
- As many as 93% of perpetrators are known (family/friends/church members/acquaintances) to the victim beforehand
- 82% of child and youth victims are female
- 9% of youth ages 14 to 21 commit some form of sexual abuse toward another person (which reminds us that it’s not just our task to protect our children from abuse, but also our task to raise our children to never harm another in this way)
My sister-in-law recently blogged about Sex Ed. in her house, and through her I found the following website: Frontline Moms and Dads. Frontline’s “Open Letter to My Fellow Homeschool Parents” is worth a read. While I feel a bit removed from the author’s core audience, the letter nonetheless stirred up fire in my bones.
This, this, THIS is very real problem in our culture! The abuse of our children to gratify perverse sexual desires is not only wicked, but is shockingly commonplace.
If you are not aware that one in three of our daughters will be molested, raped, or in some other way sexually abused before she reaches adulthood, then please let that sink in.
If you are not aware that one in six of our sons will face the same evil, please, do your research and get informed.
If you do not realize that nearly one out of every ten young people will victimize another human being for the sake of their own sexual gratification, please, let this shake you to your bones.
Please! Because this is not Somebody Else’s Kid we are talking about. We are talking about your daughter. We are talking about your son. We are talking about my sons, and my daughters. We’re talking about our grandchildren, our nieces, our nephews, and the kids just down the street. We might even be talking about your own childhood, I don’t know. But I know for sure we’re talking about mine.
Sexual abuse is not something sinister that happens to other people’s kids. It’s not packaged neatly and delivered to people different from ourselves. Sexual abuse also doesn’t happen to “bad” people; we’re not safeguarded by our religions, we’re not immune because we have faith, we’re not protected because our communities are good and our parenting practices mindful. Our vigilance helps, yes, but we must know that even good and careful parents will experience the devastating horror of having sexual abuse occur against their children.
So this is a conversation we all need to be having. In our homes, in our churches, in our communities, we need to be talking about this. And not just amongst adults does this conversation need to be had; this is a day in which frank, blunt, honest conversations need to be held with our children.
Forget delicacy. Face the shame and secrecy surrounding your own story, if you have one. Forget embarrassment. Forget, even, your longing to keep them in the dark. Preserve their childhood innocence, yes, but not at the peril of setting them at risk. Give the children knowledge, and wisdom, and confidence, and the right kind of tools. Perhaps thus armed, their experiential innocence will remain intact.
WHAT TO SAY
- Bodies: Please, speak openly with your children about their bodies. They must know that their bodies are sacred, and their bodies are their own; no one else has a right to touch them without permission. They must know that certain parts of their bodies are private; they must know what is and what is not appropriate to show and do in public, in private, and with others; they must know how to respect the bodies of other people.
- Sex: Please, teach frankly about sex; from mechanics to timing to consequences to pleasure, teach about the good and wonderful as well as the evil and perverse. Raise your children with virtues such as purity, joy, dignity, self- and other-respect, self-possession, self-restraint and self-control. Please help your children recognize when others do not act in right, true, pure and honoring ways. Teach them how to say no. Teach them when to say yes. Guide them to trust their instinct, their conscience, their values, their heart.
- Abuse: Please, instruct your children in right and wrong; make sure they know the difference between wrong they commit, and a wrong act committed against them. There is much shame connected with abuse. Make sure they know what abuse is, and that if abuse happens to them, it is not their fault. And if ever happens by them, it is their fault and they need to own up. Be certain they know how to avoid abuse, how to escape abuse, what to do to stop abuse, and if they can’t stop it, what to do after abuse takes place. Make sure they know whom to tell. Make sure they can always tell you.
- Feelings: Abuse is deceitful. Sexual abuse is manipulative. A child will think he’s done wrong when he hasn’t. He will feel dirty when he is not. She will feel ashamed and afraid to tell. Even a child with a close relationship with her parents may lie and defend the abuser. So please, speak openly about the deceitful front abuse can carry, and give the children examples of how it can look and feel.
- Lies: The abuser will threaten and lie dirty. He may vow harm to the child or to someone the child loves, as a way to keep the child silent. The child must know that if this happens, the abuser is speaking lies. His threats are empty. Let them see such words as a signifier that abuse is abuse, and also as assurance that more than ever, the child must speak up.
- Manipulations: The abuser may also manipulate and groom. Whether it’s twisting your teen’s mind to think she’s being loved, or grooming her so that she feels she must care for him in some way, or any other form of manipulation, the perpetrator may be sneaky, and the child may be genuinely duped. Teach your children to recognize these things before they take place. Teach your children so well, that an abuser’s lies and manipulations will have the opposite of the intended effect.
- Abusers: Children must have the ability to recognize abusers and abusive behaviors. They must know that evil exists in the world. They need to be told that sexual abuse is most often caused by somebody a child knows and trusts. Be brave enough to emphasize that it can happen at the hand of someone they love.
- Relationships: Be the safe person to whom your child will turn in a crisis such as sexual abuse. Practice listening. Invest in their hearts on a daily basis. Stay so connected in relationship that he or she will tell you anything, even when it’s hard. Prove to them that you will always receive anything they say without judgement and with honest love. It’s your relationship with your child that’s most important, of course. On this, many things will rise and fall.
Childhood sexual abuse is more rampant than any of us would like to believe. But it’s the type of danger that is right here under our noses, right here where we would not think to look. Conversation may not prevent it entirely, nor protect our children perfectly, but I believe a bit of frank talk is a very good place to start.
Remember, you are not setting out to frighten your children. You are making them aware. You are providing them the knowledge and tools they need to live boldly without fear, and you are also validating to their hearts your own trustworthiness, which may make all the difference in the world if sexual abusers ever dare to come near.
*This blog post is not meant to be a collection of resources. For more information, and a good jumping-in point, please see the American Humane Association’s page on sexual abuse. For further information, and if your child has been abused, please see Frontline Moms and Dads. And if you yourself (or someone you love) experienced sexual abuse as a child, help can be found at The Allender Center, and through the book The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse.